A former WorldTour racer weighs in on the importance of unmeasurable data in cycling

The complexities of a bicycle race are what makes it intriguing to the spectator and a game of poker for the racer. Humans can masquerade their pain or strength, tricking their rivals. Team dynamics can win or lose a race. Movements within the peloton, away from the camera, influence the outcome. The strongest rider can be outwitted by a weaker rival. Races are not often won on brawn alone but rather through thoughtful calculation. A cyclist will learn to be a racer through practice, mentorship, and attention to detail. In a game that is often won or lost by tiny percentages the mind can often trump physical brawn. Yet, coaches, scouts and riders often focus their attention, whether in training or selection, on the physical aspects of the cyclist.

The “game” of cycling

As we rolled through the Los Angeles hills, Dr. Allen Lim and I were discussing how to structure training sessions. With a group of riders that spanned generations and genders we had just lapped out loops around the Rose Bowl, leading out Ruth Winder as she prepared for her racing season. The imaginary finish line was marked by a bollard at the roadside. We discussed the importance of sessions like these: riders find the flow within the group at speed, they gauge each other’s movements, they gain the confidence going into the coming races. They learn to time a sprint based on wind, elevation etc. Often, simple games on the bike are overlooked in favour of a structured solo effort.

Listening to retired NBA player and, now youth coach, JJ Redick, talk about coaching kids and going into detailed descriptions of their practices and games. It made me aware of how little cycling coaches focus on strategy in comparison to other sports. Even at the pro level, race video analysis and preparation remains rare.  This is unlike in most other pro sports where teams of analysts review tape footage detailing every movement. As many races unfold in a similar pattern on a similar course each season, video analysis could play a significant role in preparing riders before or debriefing after. Similarly, analysis of competitors’ strengths, weaknesses and movements on the bike, would give a performance edge. Each team should have a database of recent races they can draw on to prepare their riders and sports directors.

The complexities of strategy in bike racing

Cycling is unique in that it is an endurance sport, and the team structure and strategy is arguably more complex than ball/puck sports with multiple shifting variables, which reinforces the need to teach, and practice, strategy, especially in developmental years.

The fundamentals of cycling are often overshadowed by watts per kilogram, TSS scores and other metrics. As Allen put it, “Everyone is playing the wrong game! They forget that the point of what we do is to win! And to win, you have to find a way to cross the finish line first. But instead of focusing on how to do that, everyone focuses on just building a bigger engine.”

One of the women we rode with, Caroline Wreszin, summed it up well. “It’s the same with Scrabble. You win Scrabble by scoring the most points. But, all people focus on when they play Scrabble is making words. If you focus, not on words in Scrabble (which seems like the best and most obvious strategy) but just on getting points, you’ll always win. People have to focus on what’s needed to win!”

The disappearance of clubs

In North America, the dissolution of the club structure which once made up the foundation of the cycling community left a void in strategic development. Club group rides are now rare and races, once run by local clubs and volunteers, are fewer and more costly as they are run for profit. Young riders today don’t always have the mentors they could find in a club in prior generations, to teach them respect, etiquette, and skills, whether mechanical, strategic or in life, that have been passed between generations. Paid coaches are now the norm and online videos provide the platform to learn strategy. Allen said, “It’s tough to properly coach the LA Lakers from an apartment in New York City.”

This is why track cycling can be crucial in cycling development. In the compressed racing and training environment coaches can give direct feedback to riders. Errors can quickly be addressed and corrected; progression is made. Of course, sadly, not all kids have access to a track and often coaches don’t see the value in sessions as the learnings aren’t reflected in their online training scores.

Skills beyond power

As they scout for talent, many professional teams now ask for young rider’s TrainingPeaks access to analyze potential without truly knowing their ability to ride in a peloton, descend a mountain at speed, or integrate into a team. There are no metrics that can quantify a rider’s mental ability, or even bike handling skills. They scout based on averages, and outliers, values that are skewed as they constantly evolve in junior racers as they mature. An astute racer, a devoted teammate, a smart tactician, has value to a team, but will often be overlooked in favour of the physical outlier, who may not know how to win, or help the team win. Like the NFL combine, physical parameters often don’t correlate directly with professional success but simply provide some insight into an athlete’s abilities. “Many times in the NFL, the “better” prospect isn’t the one who makes the impact, but the “right” prospect is. That’s the player who fits what the team wants to do and whose team puts them in a position to do what they do best.”

Play poker, not chess

It’s often said that cycling is chess but really it’s a game of poker. In chess, a player can see his rival’s pieces, whereas in poker the hand is hidden. In a bike race, a racer never knows what cards his rival holds. With time and experience, they will learn to watch other’s movements on the bike. That includes signs of weakness or strength, on which they can capitalize. Racers learn to hide their weaknesses, or to bluff. They learn the techniques and lines required to corner at speed, to feel wind direction so they know where to hide in the peloton, or how to line up the sprint. Even as a veteran professional, these were skills we practiced often on training rides. Living in Girona, we would ride a paceline in a small group, and race for the townsigns, or attack the tops of climbs. It was not only fun but also helped us hone skills through repetition. At training camps in Mallorca, we would run lead out drills with Mark Cavendish or Andre Greipel, to develop our line-up and become accustomed to riding with one another before the season began.

Energy consumption is part of winning

I’ve raced on teams with riders who broke climbing records throughout Europe and North American while training. Based on their physical attributes, they should have won Grand Tours and Monuments.  But those results never materialized. As their domestique, it was evident that their movements in the peloton are what lost them races. Bad habits were hard to break and they constantly wasted energy before the breakpoint of the race, and as a result didn’t have the legs to perform in the finale. Conversely, many of the riders who won the most, perhaps didn’t always have the greatest legs on the day. But there were never out of position, never in the wind until the breakpoint of the race. And they understood the flow of the peloton and could see the strategy of the race unfold. It was a quality that seemed innate, but it had been learned through race starts, attention to video footage, a study of their rivals, and years of training with others.

To win, a rider needs to become a racer, which happens through building physical and mental strength and by learning to control as many variables as possible that will influence the goal.

By Michael Barry, Originally published in Canadian Cycling Magazine. February 27, 2024

2 thoughts on “Beyond watts: Decoding the hidden strategies of being a good bike racer

  1. These days we are often relying on brief highlights to show what happened in a race. Missing the build up to the move that won the race. But I am confused by what seems negative tactics common at some levels of racing. Teams seem to work to shut down any development during the race and there is a sprint or attack by the usual suspects to win in the end. Instead of cooperating to make the bigger teams work for the win. Obviously, the stronger riders or leaders will be there more often to battle for the finish. But why do weaker teams/ riders want to chase their rivals down tiring them both so the expected rider or teams X and Y always win?
    In some sports, the strategy of a weaker team or player is to make the expected winner work for the prize. Not to shut them down but to avoid making it easy for them. 30 years ago when I followed the tours and classics more, you would read about how many riders took a long term view to competing. If you help an ally today when you can’t win then they may return the favour another time. But if you never help anyone else and just take advantages of others, there will be a time when you are having an off day. Then others will let you suffer and leave you behind.

  2. A great article Michael. Of course, you have hit all the right points. Years ago, I used to race with Dave Kenny, my best friend from my school days. He was one of those individuals who could .read’ a race and spot all the hidden signs that his competitors gave. He had that Gretskiesque sixth sense of knowing what was likely to happen at a given point in the contest and he acted accordingly. Many of us watched Dave and we too learned strategy and positioning. But there was no formal programme to teach us these skills – we picked them up through osmosis.
    When I attended the inaugural level 3 theory course in Ottawa, it was the first time that there was an emphasis on the psychology of coaching but most of those present went away afterwards and resorted to the old ‘tried and true’ ways of concentrating on fitness and strength. Norman Sheil, Canada;s national road coach at the time was the only one who beliieved that psychology should play a far larger part in a rider’s development.

    Keep these wise words coming Michael.

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